The future is coming quickly to Spring Lake Park schools.

Earlier this month, the school board approved a plan that eventually will put a computer in the backpacks of most of the district's 4,300 second- to 12th-grade students. Kindergartners and first-graders will have iPod Touch devices that stay at school; second-graders will have iPod Touches that stay at school; and third- through 12th-graders will have iPads that either stay at school or, for most students, travel with them.

"It's another tool for teachers to improve the engagement and personal learning for students," said Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg. Technology "is such a part of everyday life, and the tools and technology now are such that it's really become a meaningful and valuable instructional tool."

The program will be rolled out slowly. Although all teachers will have tech tools and extensive training by the start of the next school year, students' rollout will happen much more slowly. All students won't get their devices until February.

Not the first

The north metro district is not the first to put tech tools in students' hands, but the spread of grade levels is one of the widest in the state. Last year, Little Falls provided iPads to about 1,500 students in grades 5-12. Farmington is looking at a plan to give an iPad to all of its 6,500 K-12 students by the end of next year. Farmington and Spring Lake Park are looking at collaborating to increase their purchasing power and training dollar.

The Spring Lake Park program is possible because of a $1.06 million capital projects levy approved by voters last fall that included funding for technology upgrades and acquisitions. The final cost has not yet been negotiated, and will depend on whether the district decides to purchase the devices outright or lease them. In any case, Ronneberg said, the cost will be less than $600,000.

Having a one-to-one kid-to-tech ratio makes all the difference in how much teachers incorporate technology into their lessons, Ronneberg said.

"When the kids each have a device, they're used more often," he said. "Teachers can plan when to have them and make them part of instruction."

The district has tried working with computer carts that are shared between classrooms.

"You don't get the implementation at the level you want because the teachers can't count on having the devices when they need them," Ronneberg said.

Letting students take the devices home also creates a more level playing field, between disadvantaged kids and their wealthier peers.

"It's making sure that there's that equity and access for all students," he said. "I feel like that's really important."

Students get 'crazy-interested'

The tools have the potential to make huge changes in the classroom, said Spring Lake Park High School geography teacher Scott Wicklund.

"I'm no longer the sole provider of knowledge," he said. "I've been seeing kids really get interested in things if there's a spark that goes off. They'll do research on their own."

The technology tools have the potential to make lessons deeper and more personal than they've ever been before, he said. He can see the difference in their engagement and in their test scores.

"Show how it applies to their lives and that's where kids really get fired up," he said. Rather than just looking at a map, students can use programs like Google Earth to study the terrain of a country, its water consumption, how its topography affects how people live there.

Wicklund will set out a list of requirements for students to show their knowledge.

"They'll take it and go far beyond what I've asked them to do because they're crazy-interested in it," he said.

Teachers still vital

Though community members have expressed worries about placing a tool worth $200 to $600 in the hands of a child or a teen, a canvassing of other districts has shown misuse is not as big a problem as people might think.

"We learned that students, if we give them a good education and the beginning, they'll be responsible if we give them ownership," said Denise Waalen, director of educational services. "The other piece is they have the same one back each year. If you don't take care of it, it's not like you're going to trade it in."

Though the introduction of 24-7 technology tools changes the roles of teachers, it won't supplant them, Ronneberg said.

"An iPad or any tech device by itself isn't an answer," he said. "It's how the teacher uses that tool with kids."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409